Arusha Regional Commissioner Magesa Mulongo said this week that government at the regional level is committed to fast track the construction of a proposed soda ash factory at Lake Natron in Ngorongoro District, stating that the move would create job opportunities.
He said he was optimistic that the project would play an important role in boosting the country’s socio-economic development. “As government we’ll not continue reeling in poverty while our minerals are lying untapped.
“With harvesting at Lake Natron, we will not be the first to do so, because our neighbours, Kenya, are doing the same on the other side of the lake.”
RC Mulongo’s fresh campaign on the project comes seven months since The Guardian reported exclusively on lost hope on the project implementation as the highest office responsible for Environment made a strong note that nothing would compromise the scientific recommendations on the matter.
That report quoted the Director of Environment in the Vice-President’s Office Dr Julius Ningu as saying that the government was of the opinion that it should preserve sustainable use of natural resources adding that the proposed project was in principle short of that principle opinion.
But RC Mulongo pushed his blame on local and international environmental activists, saying they have been thwarting the government efforts in tapping country’s resources for the benefit of Tanzanians.
He explained that what was needed for the project was to be careful in the installation of the project, without disrupting the ecosystem of the area.
The RC noted that Arusha has a number of sources of revenue, which are yet to be tapped including Lake Natron. “This region is ranked number three for collecting revenue, but if we’ll utilise all opportunities available, we’ll be the second or number one in terms of revenue collection.
He called district commissioners and local government leaders to team-up and explore all opportunities for the country’s socio-economic development.
However Ningu had said: “The government position for this particular site is to maintain ecological system so that flamingos continue to breed for the benefit of natural vegetation at the area… that is why we have prohibited any human activities at the area,” added: “When we talk of sustainable use of natural resources, we mean for the benefit of current and future generation, now extraction of soda ash for sure can’t be beneficial to the future generation.”
In March 2011 President Jakaya Kikwete directed that the project be speeded up for country’s economic benefits as Kenya benefits from the same project at Lake Magadi. Soda ash is a basic raw material used in the processing and chemical industries.
Environmental activists argue that Lake Natron is special as it is the only breeding site for flamingos in this part of Africa.
In 2006 an Indian company, Tata Chemical Industries Ltd, in collaboration with the Tanzanian Government put forward a proposal to construct a $450 million factory that would produce 500,000 tonnes of soda ash per year and employ 150 permanent staff.
However, there was a huge outcry from conservation groups – BirdLife International, the Lake Natron Consultative Group, RSPB, among others – that opposed the move, saying, it would disrupt the breeding of Lesser Flamingos that are listed as “Near Threatened.” Intensive campaigning led to a shelving of the initial project and withdrawal by Tata Chemical Industries in May 2009.
Last October, Director of Environment at the Vice President Office Ningu, further said: “I know there is this issue of project’s economic benefit and investment attraction, well but any benefit which overrides research and findings from scientists should not be allowed to stand, every key point raised should be dealt with properly and if the current investor loses patience then we can have another.”
Site developers - National Development Corporation (NDC) - was quoted in October 2010 as saying it had picked the Institute of Resources Assessment (IRA) of the University Dar es Salaam University to carry out social and environmental impact assessment. NDC Managing Director Gideon Nasari then said the assessment would have assisted to clear the air over the project.
However, the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) told this paper last July that it was yet to receive the ordered second assessment report, almost 12 months down the line.
NEMC Director of environmental impact assessment Ignas Mchallo said then that the council had not received any environmental impact assessment report after the first one adding that there were also other key matters like ecological aspects that both the developer and the government needed to acquire in-depth understanding ahead of development interventions.
On the second EIA, NEMC said that four specific factors were to be made clear in the second assessment as follows: Key plant process issues such as the chemistry, quality and quantity of the products (both the commodities and wastes) and related type and significance of impacts.
The second factor was the project components which were not covered in the first EIA studies like the access roads, the food chain, the hydrology, the lake water chemistry and the socio-economic structures of the communities living in that area.
Other two key factors are: sitting of the plant and its other establishments considering impacts of lighting, noise, discharges and other pertinent features as well as cost-benefit analysis to include the tourism potential in the long term.
It is estimated that there are 2.5 million of Lesser Flamingo at Lake Natron, which is the only regular breeding area in East Africa. They feed on blue - green algae, known as spirulina.
The lake has a shallow depth of less than three metres (10 feet) and varies in width depending on its water level which changes due to high evaporation, leaving high levels of salts and other minerals.
The extraction of soda ash would among other thing involve construction of a factory, during which it would be pumping a large amount of water from lake to the factory and adding fresh water to the lake, a fact raising fears among environmental scientists, activists and wildlife conservationists of affecting the lake’s level of salinity and eventual foreseeable expulsion of flamingo.